The gift of
Italian dining scene, established by immigrant families, and
inspired by regional specialties and familial recipes
Photos by Dan Bishop
(left), Theresa and Peter run the critically acclaimed Sala da
Pranzo on Milwaukee's East Side.
Balistreri siblings, Tony, Theresa and Peter, running Sala da Pranzo
Italian restaurant is an extension of their family experience. Even
before their grandfather came to America as a young boy from St. Elia,
Silicy in the early 1900s the Balistreris have been a cooking family.
"My great-grandmother, Nanny, used to cook for everyone from her
grandchildren to the lady who cut her hair," Tony Balistreri
says. "She wanted to feed people. It was her gift to the
Peter got his
first kitchen job at Sala at 13 working for his older siblings. After
studying at the Culinary Institute of America he came back to Sala as
a partner chef.
Roadhouse & Dominic’s Sports Lounge
to the days of red-checkered tablecloths, Albanese’s capitalizes on
its three generations of family owner-operators. House specialties
include Steak Pizzaoila, a tenderloin sautéed with vegetables and
Marsala wine, topped with provolone cheese and served with a choice of
spaghetti or mostaccioli; and Italian sausage cacciatore with homemade
Italian sausage and red wine married to green peppers and oodles of
mushrooms and onions. Lunch is served Monday through Friday. A
separate area has been remodeled with a lounge/sports bar format,
along with a game room available for private parties.
Bartolotta serves rustic Italian dishes from Central and Northern
Italy. Occupying a prime corner in the heart of Tosa Village, this
Bartolotta dynasty flagship makes for a dining delight. The chefing
staff can whip up a Spiedini di Quaglia alla Griglia, a perfectly
grilled quail breast skewered with Brussels sprouts and served with
baked polenta. Proud of its community links, Bartolotta’s was the
official restaurant group for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Throughout
that event, Bartolotta presented fun pairings between its many
eateries and various movies, such as linking "Summer Games"
(Giochi d’Estate) with the Ristorante’s Pappardelle al Ragu d’Anatra,
a Tuscan dish hearkening back to the movie’s setting.
restaurateur "Papa Tony" Fazzari died in September, his
extended clan is carrying on the family’s three decades of food
service. While the Calderone took first place in the Milwaukee
Meatball Challenge 2012, this comfortable, family oriented restaurant
can also turn out a champion range of Strauss veal options. Among them
are marsala, parmigiano, scallopini, limone and piccata preparations.
Each is served with Italian bread, mixed green salad and
rosemary-seasoned red potatoes or pasta marinara. The Calderone has
expanded outside deck service during its North Shore site’s summer
season, with a cluster of tables in the house front and more tables,
plus booths, ranging to the right of the entrance. The decor isn’t
fancy, but the place is truly foodie functional. A sister restaurant
is located on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee, across from the
Milwaukee County Historical Society.
8001 N. Port
Washington Road, Glendale, (414) 352-9303,
A portrait of
Guiseppe and Francesca Carini, parents of restaurant owner Peter
Carini, oversees the dining room at La Conca D’Oro, "The Shell
of Gold." Aboard the S.S. Anna Maria in 1966, these elder Carinis
voyaged stateside from Porticello, Sicily, with sons and daughters
Peter, Rosario, Santo, Albert, Salvatore, Maria and Antonia. Peter
opened his restaurant in 1996, now aided by chef son Gregg.
Emphasizing Sicilian cooking, Carini is known for his beef, chicken,
veal, swordfish and eggplant spiedinis. One of his signature dishes is
La Conca d’Oro, spaghetti with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams,
calamari and crushed peppers tossed in a homemade marinara sauce or
garlic wine sauce.
Ingrilli moved to Milwaukee from Capo d’Orlando, Sicily, in 1964 and
began making pizza at the tender age of 17. At 24, he opened his first
restaurant and then went on to launch an Italian deli and liquor
store. He and his wife, Kathy, swung open their doors at Caterina’s
in 1982. In 2003, their son, Tony Jr., took over the bright, cheery
facility where, if anyone wants seafood, Ingrilli has it. Patrons
flock here for the scampi in its numerous transformations: paired with
scallops, breaded; "al francaise," dipped in an egg batter
and sautéed with lemon juice; and "messinese," sautéed in
tomatoes, olive oil, wine, onions, plenty of garlic and lots of
delicious fontina cheese. For meat eaters, Ingrilli’s prime steer
filet All’ Antonio is seasoned, breaded and then sautéed with
freshly sliced mushrooms, green peppers and onions. The ristorante
also has lamb, pork and chicken. As curvy as an Italian starlet, the
well-stocked bar is a dining room feature.
Centro looms large in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood for its
expansive service and hearty portions. It presents craft cocktails
concocted with Bittercube’s locally made bitters. Tables line the
wall, with other guests able to sit at a bar to watch the food
prepping up close and personal while savoring aromas. The two window
tables front the door to Center Street and are primo locations in
which to see and be seen. In the summer, patrons perch at sidewalk
tables to capitalize on warm weather and enjoy the street hustle.
Owner Pat Moore and his wife, Peg Karpfinger, gradually rehabbed their
building’s old bones, making magic with both the décor and the
dining when it opened in 2009. Certain dishes, as marked on the menu,
can be prepared vegan and/or gluten free. Among recommendations are
the penne bolognese and Centro’s shrimp and scallops "al
diavolo," done in a spicy white wine tomato sauce with linguine
and bedazzled by fresh herbs.
On the city’s
restaurant scene since 1997, chef Michael Feker emphasizes simple
Italian cuisine, augmented by a superb wine list. Winning the chariot
race for the city’s best spaghetti bolognese is Feker’s tasty
dance of Italian sausage, ground beef eye of the round, chicken sans
hormones/antibiotics, plus savory herbs simmered in a red wine and
tomato reduction. Feker points out that he grows his own herbs at home
in planters, which are moved inside during the winter. Among his
favorites are basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, cilantro and mint.
Along with small plates (piatti piccoli), Il Mito has numerous
seasonal gluten-free offerings. The restaurant is snug, with a long
bar backed by tables against a rustic wall. The front of the room
faces Wauwatosa’s bustling North Avenue, with a side area devoted to
parties, tastings and cooking demonstrations.
All roads lead
to Rome and all good things Italian in Milwaukee lead to the Italian
Community Center for its activities, ranging from bocce to banquets.
The center was founded in 1978 to celebrate the homeland’s heritage
and culture, and has been at its current location since 1990. At its
on-site Cafe La Scala, executive chef Jack McNeir is known for his
Chicken Saltimbocca, a sautéed breast of chicken layered with fresh
sage and prosciutto topped with marsala mushroom butter sauce served
over fettuccine pasta with asparagus spears. For value-added to a
meal, the center’s annual Courtyard Music Series has delighted
diners for 12 years, from June through September. In addition, Italian
food specialists Rachel Anderson and Salvatore Strehlow host "Sapori
Italiani, Savoring the Flavors of Italy" on the center’s
website, offering monthly recipes and lots of fun chat about food.
One never knows
who might be sitting at the next table in Mimma’s, a Brady Street
fine dining fixture. Owner Mimma Megna attracts major sports figures,
band leaders and other celebrities, a clientele drawn by her
hospitality and food. Megna arrived stateside in 1963 from Sicily and
became a cook at the North Shore Country Club. A couple of decades
later, she launched Mimma’s and this "Queen of Italian
Cuisine" has not slowed down since. Megna puts a different twist
on many of her pasta offerings, including vegetarian-style. Her penne
con asparagi includes pasta with fresh asparagus and anchovies
sautéed in olive oil and a black pappardelle pasta with shrimp and
calamari in marinara sauce. And yes, that was ex-NYC mayor Rudy
Giuliani perched over there, mopping up his sauce.
When it comes to
bruschetta, Riverwest’s low-key Nessun Dorma has few equals. For
starters, the restaurant’s Crostini Pizzaiola is a thick-sliced
seeded deli loaf crowned with hearty Roma tomatoes, plenty of basil
and garlic and melted fresh mozzarella. Then there is also a
traditional grilled Tuscan bread, topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh
basil and plenty of anti-vampire garlic. The pesto is housemade, plus
kalamata and Greek green olive tapenades. Speaking of olives, diners
can also get large or small portions of red and black Bella de
Cerignola and green Castelvetrano olives tossed in a house vinaigrette
with capers, onions and celery.
The Pasta Tree
has been a prime date-night choice for years, with its romantic decor
emphasizing intimate dining experiences and plenty of hand-holding if
one (or two) wish. But even lovers can take time out from gazing
adoringly to sample proscuitto-wrapped scallops or a veal picatta.
Among the more interesting dishes is a shrimp serving in an alfredo
sauce with steamed broccoli. A favored specialty is the Tree’s
traditional Italian tomato sauce with its touch of cream, splash of
vodka and kalamata olives. To conclude a moonlight-softened evening,
the restaurant serves fabled Lavazza coffee and rich espresso.
Farwell Ave., (414) 276-8867
With its exposed
brick walls and ceiling rafters, proximity to the River Walk, a
comfortable bar near the entrance and large TVs, Rustico emphasizes
the casual. Opened by Italian restaurant maestro Brian Zarletti in
2008, Rustico is primarily a pizza place, but offers extensive salads,
antipasti and panini. Veal Bolognese is a favored dish, with the
classic pasta primavera doing as well. The wine list is heavy on
Italian varieties, with half pricing on Tuesday’s bottles. This is a
handy lunch drop-in if meandering the Third Ward.
makes a point out of celebrating the Third Ward’s Italian heritage,
emphasizing tutto cucinato al momento, or cooking from scratch. Small
plates are big here, such as beef carpaccio and gnocchi. Larger
servings by chef Joe McCormick do well on the portions, with
out-of-the-ordinary items such as braciole, a short rib with
mushrooms, white truffle potato puree and cipollini onions. As part of
the Surg Restaurant Group’s impressive lineup of eateries in
Milwaukee, Graffito has become a hit with downtown trendies and
corporate groups. Everyone is eager to briefly pass up their river
view if there is the chance to spot the restaurant’s ballplaying
namesake Ryan Braun, who pops in occasionally.
While only a
block east of the UW-Milwaukee campus, Sala da Pranzo could be in the
heart of Sicily. Opened in 2001 by the sibling team of Teresa and
Anthony Balistreri, the two were then joined by brother Peter. Both
men perform the chef duties, making sauces by hand, using herbs from
their seasonal rooftop garden and emphasizing fresh produce. The two
regularly come up with delightful new ways of tackling weekly
specials, such as their Sicilian Sashimi, composed of thinly slice raw
scallops, olive oil, lemon zest, chives, capers and pickled red
onions. They readily offer many dishes prepared gluten free, dairy
free or vegan.
Tenuta’s parents, Cesare and Antonia, came to America from southern
Italy in 1961. According to family legend, they carried original
family recipes gathered from throughout Italy. That attention to the
old ways is still evident in the gamberetti, grilled shrimp with
sautéed capers and baby spinach on a bed of fettuccine, drizzled with
lemon garlic sauce. The original Caesar would have crossed the Rubicon
twice if he had the chance to taste Tenuta’s snappy insalata di
Caesar, romaine lettuce blessed with — of course — a house
dressing concocted so secretly that even Vatican archivists are
The Third Ward
Caffé has a long history in the Historic Third Ward. The building
itself is a converted 1875 produce warehouse, in a neighborhood once
the bustling hub of the city’s Little Italy at least until the
freeway and urban renewal carved out its heart in the 1960s. Deftly
managed since 1982 by Jane and Randy Nelson, the menu these days
features veal, beef, chicken, pizza and more than 20 pastas. Seasonal
specials are popular, with produce as often as possible from the
Nelsons’ Door County farm. There are some 100 Italian wines,
including traditional chianti through sparkling dry champagnes. For a
treat at Saturday’s brunch, indulge in the carbonara frittata, a
three-egg omelet with angel hair pasta and pancetta bacon. The hallway
leading into the restaurant often features local artists, such as
photographer Miles Fabishak whose "Ladies in Red" exhibition
during a recent Gallery Night was one of that event’s sleeper hits.
The Caffé is across St. Paul Avenue from the Milwaukee Public Market.
So look both ways!
Diners flock to
T&M’s for executive chef Camilla DiNicola’s classic braised
beef ravioli and her Bucatini all’Amatriciana Rossa, consisting of
hollow pasta comfortably ensconced in a sauce of pancetta, tomatoes,
onions and garlic. Note the touches of pepperoncini and Parmesan
cheese. For Piattini Tuesdays ("small plates" in Italian),
crooner Jerry Zelm sings hits from Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and
Johnny Mathis. That’s the time for a flute of Prosecco — Superiore
Riondo 2009. But who can argue that this cheery ristorante in downtown
Delafield serves up what drink aficionados call the best Bloody Marys
in Lake Country? Co-owner Randy Piering, DiNicola’s husband, is
renowned for his flourishing tableside pepper grinding. Piering does
double duty as chef for Sunday’s plated brunch, even curing his own
Located on South
Howell Avenue just south of Drexel Ave in Oak Creek, this cozy,
comfortable eatery with its clean, simple lines has one of the better
piatto antipasto servings in the area. Accommodating two to four
diners, the platter includes prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella,
husky Italian olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese
cubes, plus additional seasonal items. The trattoria’s family-style
option is great for any hungry group wishing to indulge in chicken
Parmesan, pollo saltimbocca, filet boscaiola or other favorites paired
with pasta and choice of sauces. For high fliers, the restaurant’s
catering division provides in-flight meals to charter airlines and to
private and corporate jets. There’s nothing like a caprese salad and
beef sacchettini above the clouds.
name, Tutto (pronounced "too-toe") means
"everything" in Italian. Owners Giovanni Safina, his three
sons Sal, David and Joe, and friend Donato Salvo have created a lively
hot spot in Milwaukee’s nightclub zone. They offer a menu of Italian
favorites blended with American continental cuisine. Popular dishes
include Dijon crusted tilapia, served with whole wheat spaghetti, and
a dynamite four-cheese ravioli. But the Two Buck Tuesday with $2
sliders (Bambino Burgers and Meatball Sliders) and $2 tappers are
wildly popular with the city’s after hours up-and-comers. In some
food circles, the elder Safini is nicknamed "The Godfather of
Italian Food," making a distinguished restaurant career that
started with his first eatery, Giovanni’s, in 1977.
Diners win big
at Wild Earth Cucina, on Potawatomi’s upper level. The restaurant,
the casino’s latest eatery addition, opened this past summer to
glowing critiques, especially with the cooking area open for viewing.
Chef Audrey Vandenburgh and sous chef Maggie Haller have come up with
a compelling menu they call "a mix of contemporary and
traditional interpretations with a focus on local, organic and
sustainable foods." In other words: good, hearty fare. A dish of
seasonal olives as appetizers is a great way to start a dining
experience that might include duck confit, porcini mushroom broth,
wilted escarole and garlic-roasted Roma tomatoes with orecchiette
pasta. Then conclude with cassata, a traditional Sicilian sweet
created with a ricotta and mascarpone along with candied cherries,
limoncello, toasted meringue and almond tuile.
Chef and owner
Brian C. Zarletti concentrates on regional Italian cuisine inspired by
his grandmother and learned from his numerous trips to Italy. For a
primi selection, Ravioli del Giorno, ask about the day’s variety of
stuffed, handmade pasta. Zarletti’s also has one of the city’s
largest Italian wine selections, featuring at least 30 varieties by
the glass, mostly by small producers. The restaurant is perhaps the
only place in town that serves a sinfully smooth Vietti, 2004 Barolo
Riserva "Villero" Piemonte at $400 a bottle. The modernist
dining room has views of bustling downtown through its
Q: Who has
been your most admired mentor in the kitchen?
Great-Grandmother Lena or "Nanny." She was always
cooking, from dawn till dusk. Whenever you went to her house,
whether you were hungry or not, you ate. Most likely, you left
with food, as well. I worked as an intern with Michael Cimarusti
(of Providence Restaurant in Los Angeles). I learned something
new every day and was part of a crew that was constantly
striving and pushing to do things better, faster and more
efficiently without ever sacrificing quality or consistency. I’m
trying to bring that philosophy to Sala every day.
Q: What is
the mission at the restaurant?
food philosophy at Sala is modern Sicilian cuisine. We want to
present new and traditional family recipes with the freshest
ingredients, honoring classic styles and flavors, in a
Q: How is
it working with your brother and sister?
comment … wink wink. After 10 years, I’m positive I would
have never made it this far having anyone else as a business
partner. I don’t know if it is pride or compassion that keeps
pushing us forward, but either way, I think we consistently try
have always been very close. I think this works to our advantage
and disadvantage. It’s nice to be able to rely on someone that
you know will always be there for you and help you with what
needs to be done. We also know how to push each other’s
buttons, which can and often lead to arguments. Even though we
fight we usually say what we want to say, shout a little, curse
a little and then that’s it.
Q: Who is
the alpha cook?
say it’s me when it comes between me and Peter. I’m 10 years
older. When it comes to dealing with the staff, I’ll give it
to Pete. I’m a bit softer on them than he is.
the older brother, I’ll let Tony take this one. But being a
younger brother, I love to test him and keep him on his toes.
This isn’t always the best thing to do when it comes to crunch
time but it seems to work itself out.
Anything else about Italian cuisine?
believe people have a misconception of Italian food being all
pasta and pizza all the time. To lump a cuisine and culture that
focuses most of its pride and joy on food into two simple dishes
just doesn’t cut it.
As a young
man, Peter Carini helped his family by selling shoes from a
friend’s car trunk — legally, of course — while most of
the rest of his relatives were fishermen. He came stateside in
1966 with his mother, dad and a flock of siblings.
those growing up years, he recalls that "mom was such an
amazing cook. She cooked anything they caught that day; if
nothing was caught, she would find something and made it taste
great." Subsequently, Carini readily admits learning
everything he knows about the kitchen comes from her. Well, that
and working for really great chefs.
At age 17,
he started his culinary career at the Milwaukee Athletic Club as
a bus boy. Carini spent so much time watching the cooks that the
head chef took him under his wing and taught him the many
intricacies of food preparation. After 16 years, Carini
eventually made his way to executive chef.
leaving the MAC, Carini worked at various other area
restaurants, including Zorba’s and Niko’s Family Restaurant.
These jobs readied him for what came next. Carini’s La Conca d’Oro
opened on Oct. 22, 1996. Initially, he was aided by his brothers
Sal, Albert and Rosario on weekends, to whom he attributes much
of his success.
the family link, Carini’s wife, Jan, acts as bookkeeper, bill
payer, office gal Friday and hostess. Although she sometimes
does the dishes, she rules out washing pots and pans. Their son,
Gregg, is the second chef, while the couple’s other son, PJ,
is a server, bartender, computer expert and all-around grunt.
Daughter Lisa has also worked as a server and office aide.
attended MATC culinary school, graduating with honors. He helped
at Carini’s for a time after graduation, but eventually headed
to Naples, Fla. There, he worked for a friend at the upscale
Campiello, a restaurant emphasizing "rustic
contemporary" cooking. This became a major influence on the
younger Carini’s style, while his dad still favors the more
traditional. Yet customers appreciate their blend, especially
when a dish is complemented by La Conca d’Oro’s many Italian
and Sicilian wines, as well as the Carinis’ private label
chianti. For another treat, the made-in-house limoncello liqueur
comes in lemon, strawberry, peach and blood orange flavors.
to Milwaukee, Gregg spent time at the Wisconsin Club before
going on tour as chef for Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift and at
several concerts for Paul McCartney and U2. Gregg eventually
traveled 36 states in a year, living his dream and love of
music, cooking and traveling. "As much as I enjoyed this,
it was time to come home again," he says. "It didn’t
take much prodding." Once here, he then reconstructed the
house menu to make it more family friendly and seasonal.
son share duties, deciding every week who is going to work lunch
and dinner what days. As to who’s boss on any given day, they
joke that it’s whoever yells the loudest. However, while Peter
has the final say in all decisions, Jan is ultimately the real
boss. The saying, "When mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody
happy," holds true here.
La Conca d’Oro, translating to the "Shell of Gold,"
was suggested by a friend. In Sicily, Carini‘s hometown of
Porticello is part of a cluster of villages nicknamed the
"La Conca d’Oro." Bobbing in a boat off the
Mediterranean coast and looking toward shore, a golden glow is
reflected in the water from the towns’ lights.
Carini nine months to find his current location on Oakland
Avenue. Once he set his mind on the place, the restaurant
launched a month later. "It was exciting, overwhelming and
nerve-wracking. Words cannot explain the feeling when the first
customers came through the doors on the first night," Jan
of something that just made your heart burst with pride and
multiply that times a million. And to see these customers return
again and again … Peter finally was living his dream, cooking
the food he was meant to cook," she says. "Many good
customers have become good friends. That first night there was
no sleep, and to this day there is still little sleep."
Earth's Italian Roots
For Vita Fugarino, rich tomato sauce runs in her veins. At least
figuratively. As general manager of Wild Earth Cucina Italiana
at Potawatomi Bingo Casino, she can draw upon experiences
working at Guiseppe’s Pizza, her mom and pop’s place in
Wauwatosa. There she developed her passion for the food
industry. Plus, she fell in love with the pizza, spaghetti and
eggplant parm, all done with tender, loving family care.
there was more to it than that. Along with her seven brothers
and sisters, Fugarino did whatever was necessary in order to run
Guiseppe’s, from serving and bartending to bussing tables and
washing dishes. "I (still) enjoy cooking when my family is
around. We talk, laugh, tell stories and, of course, dunk the
bread. It always ends up being a good time," she laughs.
restaurant business for 45 years, both of Fugarino’s parents
were born stateside. However, her grandparents on her dad’s
side were from Prizzi and Corleone, and her mother’s side from
Prizzi and Palermo. Her folks’ first restaurant was in
partnership with her maternal grandparents. That Sicilian
hospitality heritage was capitalized upon not only by Fugarino
but also by others in the clan. Brothers Joe and Tony operate
JoJo’s Martini Lounge and sister Joan owns a cheesecake café
in Hales Corners.
in the Fugarino family has regularly stopped into Wild Earth to
check it out. The flavorful dishes, ethnic touch and
presentation passed their scrutiny. "They are big fans of
the calamari, the Italian sausage sliders and the pork
loin," Fugarino points out, obviously pleased that even
these most discerning experts in Italian fare have given their
makes Italians such great cooks? "I think with all
ethnicities, it starts with family. Having family dinner is
sometimes considered a labor of love, so when it comes to
cooking for them or for others, everyone appreciates the work
that is poured into everything served," Fugarino says.
Fugarino knows it is not easy when it comes to Italian cooking.
"I think the biggest challenge is doing the dish justice.
Italy has so many regions and each one has its own style,"
she says. "Finding the right ingredients for a particular
dish can sometimes be a challenge; however, we are fortunate in
Milwaukee to have some great Italian groceries like Angelina’s
Deli and Glorioso’s."
it’s only a few tarantella dance steps away if Fugarino’s
kitchen needs anything Italian culinary. In addition, Wild Earth
uses fresh vegetables from local purveyors; for instance,
averaging up to 200 pounds of tomatoes a week. She also tries to
use as many other sustainable products whenever possible. Wild
Earth even makes its own pizza crust.
out a semi-secret, Fugarino confirms that Wild Earth indulges in
Acedemia Barilla 100 percent Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil,
noted for its aroma and strong hints of Pachino cherry tomatoes,
capers and yellow peppers, plus a touch of almond. She uses
approximately 15 to 18 gallons per week of this critical
ingredient, which is made in Parma, in the picturesque northern
Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.